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Iraq: UN Inspectors, Officials Spar Over Missing Equipment

As arms inspections continue in Iraq, there are mixed signs regarding the extent to which Baghdad is cooperating in opening up its sites to UN teams. UN inspectors originally praised Iraq's cooperation as the renewed inspections got under way. But this week, the United Nations also expressed concern over evidence that Iraqi officials have moved some monitoring equipment from sensitive sites ahead of inspection visits. RFE/RL looks at the progress of the inspections, now in their sixth day.

Prague, 3 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- UN arms monitors made an unannounced visit to one of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces today in the toughest test yet of Baghdad's cooperation since inspections resumed last week.

The inspectors stayed at the site, the Al-Sojoud palace in central Baghdad, for some two hours before leaving with no comment to the press. The compound is one of eight sprawling facilities Iraq has dubbed "palaces" and has previously sought to keep off-limits to arms inspections.

The visit to Al-Sojoud comes as the monitors began a sixth day of visits to suspected weapons sites around Baghdad amid controversy over whether Iraqi officials are fully cooperating with the inspection process.

The controversy centers on UN complaints that some monitoring equipment has been removed by Iraqi officials from a missile factory since the equipment was placed there by arms inspectors four years ago. Inspectors discovered the missing equipment when they visited the missile factory yesterday for the first time since they were barred from Iraq in late 1998, following U.S. and British air strikes punishing Baghdad for obstructing arms monitors.

A spokesman for the UN weapons inspectors, Hiro Ueki, said that Iraqi officials had told the team that the monitoring equipment was destroyed in the air strikes or relocated to other sites. "Our inspectors checked every building on the [missile-factory] site and they were told that some equipment, monitoring equipment that had been there before, some of it had been destroyed, some had been transferred to other sites," Ueki said.

But Iraqi officials told reporters immediately after the inspection that the UN team had found nothing amiss. The director of the site, General Mohammad Saleh Mohammad, said the inspectors' work, to the contrary, proved Iraq has no prohibited weapons. "This site is concerned with missiles, and it is working within limits imposed by the [UN] Security Council. And [the inspectors] were sure that all lies and allegations by [U.S. President George W.] Bush and [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair are groundless," Saleh Mohammad said.

Under UN limits, Iraq is permitted to have missiles with a range of less than 150 kilometers. But U.S. and British officials say Baghdad is pursuing programs to produce longer-range missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction.

The controversy over the missing equipment may be a sign that friction between Iraqi officials and UN inspectors is mounting despite early reports of good cooperation when the renewed inspections got under way in the middle of last week.

When inspections resumed on 27 November, one of the top arms monitors, Jacques Baute of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Baghdad provided full access to what the UN team wanted to see. "The team was able to complete the inspection work it had planned to carry out, with the cooperation of the Iraqi side, and we had access to what we wanted to see. We hope that the Iraqi response...reflects the future pattern of cooperation," Baute said.

Arms-control experts say it is still too early to say whether the early mood of cooperation is now breaking down under the pressure of sustained inspections. But they say that as the number of inspections increases, the arms monitors will be trying to establish whether incidents such as yesterday's dispute over the missing equipment are part of a deliberate pattern of Iraqi concealment.

John Hart, an arms-control researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden, said that establishing such a pattern will require many more inspections than those that have taken place so far. "What has to be developed is a pattern. You can't read too much into what does or doesn't happen on a particular day. But as the number of inspections goes up, then it should become clear as a result of building a baseline of, say, 50 inspections or 100 inspections," Hart said.

Hart said that since returning to work last week, the monitors have visited only a dozen of some 700 potential sites on their list for inspection. Among those visited so far are a foot-and-mouth-disease vaccination laboratory south of Baghdad, where monitoring equipment was also found missing. Iraqi officials later drove inspectors to see another location to which the equipment had been removed.

Other sites visited in the first six days of inspections have included a base for small planes used in agriculture, a graphite factory, and a private distillery that produces alcoholic drinks. The inspections are designed to uncover materials that could be used to help produce chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.

Iraq is due to submit a declaration to the UN by 8 December listing any banned weapons it has made. Baghdad says it has no such stocks and that the weapons inspections will prove it disarmed long ago despite U.S. and British charges to the contrary.

U.S. President Bush said yesterday that Iraq continues to defy the international community over disarmament. He said that "so far, the steps [Baghdad has taken] are not encouraging." He criticized Iraq for recently firing on U.S. and British planes enforcing no-fly zones over the country and for sending letters to the UN that he described as "filled with protests and falsehoods."

Bush warned Baghdad to supply a "credible and complete list of its nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons by the 8 December deadline set by the UN Security Council."